Wildlife in Sumatra

There are 11 national parks on Sumatra, several of which are UNESCO-listed and protected by the WWF. The best-known – and the one that features on practically every Sumatra vacation itinerary – is Gunung Leuser National Park. Over 150km long and 100km wide, this mountainous park lies a little to the east of Medan, the main point of entry to Sumatra, and is regarded as one of the most complex ecosystems on Earth.

However, like so many other protected natural areas in this part of the world, Sumatra’s parks are threatened by rampant deforestation, much of it illegal, and Gunung Leuser is certainly no exception. In fact, around 12 million hectares of Sumatran forest are thought to have been cleared away over the past 20 years or so, which equates to a loss of around 50 percent. The impact on Sumatra’s wildlife is, of course, just as destructive.

Habitat loss, through illegal logging and palm oil production, combined with poaching, has left many species – including Sumatran orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers – critically endangered. Every Sumatra vacation that includes an element of wildlife-watching in the island’s national park helps convince the Indonesian government and local communities that these habitats and animals have value and should be protected.

Gunung Leuser National Park

Wild orangutans are found in only two places: Sumatra and Borneo. Gunung Leuser National Park is the best place in Sumatra to see orangutans in the wild, holding around 80 percent of the island’s 6,000-strong population. There was a sanctuary in Bukit Lawang, the eastern entry point to the park, but the rehabilitation programme for orphaned orangutans has now ended, leaving it mainly as a tourist attraction. You’ll stand a good chance of seeing a semi-wild orangutan at one of the well-stocked feeding platforms here, though appearances are less common when the trees are in fruit. Visits here contribute to the excellent Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

Sumatra vacations will often feature long treks deep into remote parts of Gunung Leuser, sometimes involving overnight camping in the rainforest. Expert local guides will lead you to likely orangutan nesting locations, and ensure that for safety, no-one gets too close. These long-limbed, flame-coloured gentle giants are, of course, incredibly powerful.
But while the ‘old man of the forest’ is the star of vacations in Sumatra, it’s also far from the only wildlife that you’re likely to see in Gunung Leuser National Park. The trees chatter with pigtail and long-tailed macaques, the endemic Thomas leaf monkeys, big-hootered proboscis gibbons, hornbills and many other species of flappers such as flying fox bats.

Closer to ground level there are wild peacocks, monitor lizards, clouded leopards and sun bears. Sumatran tigers and rhinos are elusive, and few and far between. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely, that you will glimpse one. There are thought to be no more than around 600 tigers left in the Sunda Islands, and they are all on Sumatra. The Sumatran elephant, smallest of the Asian species, is even fewer in number – around 300. Some are used by rangers for jungle patrols, and you can see them in the village of Tangahan on the border of Gunung Leuser.

As you walk, your guides may also point out plants that are used by tribes for traditional medicines, as well as poisonous plants. The value of using local Sumatran guides cannot be overstated in understanding the rainforest and its flora and fauna – as well as not getting lost!

Our top Sumatra Vacation

Sumatra small group vacation

Sumatra small group vacation

Venture to Indonesia’s wild, wild west

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How you can help with conservation

Visits to the Bukit Lawang orangutan center, and certain lodge stays, support the vital work of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. But any time you head into a Sumatran National Park sends a message to officials and local communities that these places and the wildlife they contain have value to tourists, and hopefully encourage their conservation.

Back home, beyond financial support to conservation organisations, about the biggest single thing you can do to make a difference to the survival of orangutans and other endangered Sumatran animals in the wild is to try and buy only products that are made with sustainably sourced palm oil. It’s tricky given just how widely used this versatile substance has become, but not impossible. Ethical Consumer is a good place to start.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dennis Keller] [Intro: Victor Ulijn] [Gunung Leuser National Park: Dennis Keller]